Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we would like to continue Monday’s discussion on Horseman #3: Contempt. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Blink:
“If Gottman observes one or both partners in a marriage showing contempt toward the other, he considers it the most important sign that a marriage is in trouble.” Clearly, contempt is a serious problem.

We wish we could offer you a quick fix, but the truth is that fighting contempt is a difficult task. The antidote to contempt lies in building a culture of fondness and admiration.

If you feel that fondness and admiration are almost entirely gone from your relationship, we suggest that the two of you take more serious action – perhaps have a conversation (without criticism, defensiveness, and contempt!) about looking into couples therapy. If you would like a place to start, we have developed a referral network of wonderful Gottman-trained therapists called The Gottman Referral Network.
When your partner shows you contempt, they are communicating scorn, disdain, or disgust. They are communicating feelings of superiority by showing that they feel that you are inferior to them, below them, and undeserving of respect. No one deserves to be looked at or spoken to with contempt, so remember, when someone shows you contempt or disgust it says much more about them than it does about you!

However, if you feel that your relationship is far from being in serious trouble, but can still recognize yourself and/or your partner in our examples from Monday’s post, you’ll be glad to hear that  Dr. Gottman has developed a variety of tools that can help you to fight contempt by working towards building a strong foundation of Fondness & Admiration in your relationship. Today, we would like to teach you about “The Oral History Interview.”

Dr. Gottman discovered in his research that, for couples in crisis, the best test to measure the strength in their fondness and admiration system is to focus on how they view their past. If your relationship is in deep trouble, you’re unlikely to elicit much praise from each other by asking about the current state of affairs. Talking about the happy events of the past, however, helps many couples reconnect. If you revive fondness and admiration for each other, you are more likely to approach conflict resolution as a team, and the growth of your sense of “we-ness” as a couple will keep the two of you as connected as you felt when you first met!

Below is a questionnaire designed by Dr. Gottman to help you rediscover your fondness and admiration for each other. Completing this questionnaire will help you to remember the early years of your relationship – how and why you became a couple.

Note: Your marriage or relationship doesn’t have to be in deep trouble to benefit from this exercise. By focusing on your past, you can often remember and reconnect with your history of positive feelings! 

You will need a few hours of uninterrupted time to complete this exercise. You can ask a close friend or relative to serve as interviewer or you can read the questions out loud and talk about them together. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions – they are merely meant to assist you in recalling the love and perspective on the relationship you have had.

The History of Your Relationship:
1. Discuss how the two of you met and got together. Was there anything about your partner that made them stand out? What were your first impressions of each other?

2. What do you remember most about your first date and the period of your new relationship? What stands out? How long did you know each other before you got married? What do you remember of this period? What were some of the highlights? What types of things did you do together?

3. Talk about how you decided to get married. Who proposed and in what manner? Was it a difficult decision? Were you in love? Talk about this time.

4. How well do you remember your wedding? Talk to each other about your memories. Did you have a honeymoon? What was your favorite part of the wedding or honeymoon?

5. Do you remember your first year of marriage? Were there any adjustments you needed to make as a couple?

6. What about the transition to parenthood? What was this period of your marriage like for the two of you?

7. Looking back over the years, what moments stand out as the happiest period in your relationship? When was a good time for you as a couple? Has this changed over the years?

8. Many relationships go through periods of ups and downs. Would you say this is true of your relationship? Can you describe some of these low and high points?

9. Looking back over the years, what moments stand out as really hard times in your relationship? How did you get through these rough periods? Why do you think you stayed together?

10. Have you stopped doing things together that once gave you pleasure? Explore this idea together and discuss why you stopped.

Remember, this exercise is not meant to be a quick-fix, one-time solution to any problems in your relationship! Considering and discussing some questions in this exercise from time to time may be enough to salvage and strengthen your fondness and admiration for each other over time – to remind yourselves of the things you find wonderful about your partner, and to remember to cherish each other through the years.

More in The Four Horsemen
Four Horsemen: Contempt Part II
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.